Helen Schulman

New York Notebook

When the earth began to move, I was on lying on my bed with my cats in my lap. My son was in his room across the hall. The bed began to shake and I thought, inexplicably: is my little brother doing this? And then I thought, ‘Oh no, are we under attack again?’ (having 9/11 on the brain the way I and many other New Yorkers do). The cats lifted their heads at me looking for answers as the building swayed and the door to my bedroom opened and closed. When it was over, I called out to my son, asking if he’d felt anything, but he, an almost teenager, was oblivious. I went online to see the origins of the trembling I’d felt — the world is so nuts these days, was it al-Qa’eda, a bomb, my upstairs neighbours remodelling?

•••

My thoughts turned to my brother again. When we talked later that day, he said something about how we live by ignoring the threat of natural disasters, but I feel oddly grateful for them. Not that I like a natural disaster — who does? But I am sick of all the self-inflicted wounds my country has crippled itself with — the banking mess, the Bush tax cuts and the crazy deficit, the war in Iraq, the stupid wasteful infighting over the debt ceiling. With an earthquake, we can’t justifiably blame ourselves (although there are those nasty building codes and nuclear power plants sitting on fault lines to contend with). It offers a momentary escape from guilt.

•••

After the earthquake, all the talk was of Hurricane Irene, hurtling towards us from the Caribbean. Would she come all the way to New York or wouldn’t she? How bad would it be? We live in Manhattan, should we stock up on supplies? This was our dinner table conversation: I said to my husband, ‘The hurricane is your problem, I handled 9/11.’

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